by Frank Meintjies, Sunday Times 11 June 2000
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I am somewhat of a heretic when it comes to the issue of immigrants. I stand against the tide of hardened feelings against the "flood" of new arrivals from the rest of Africa.
My sentiments bring me directly up against the White Paper on International Migration. The paper echoes the approach of so many other countries - a concern to squeeze out all but a handful of highly skilled people, the shift away from border control to clampdown at the place of employment, the formation of an immigration service coupled with sprinkling of humaneness.
The paper gets top marks for being responsive. It restates popular worries that immigrants steal jobs, deplete scarce social services, corrupt our officials and "tarnish our image locally and abroad". It draws a straight line between illegal immigrants and crime. However, unlike other White Papers, this document provides no data. So we don't know how big the problem is that we must solve.
I can't argue with the White Paper - within its framework it is polished, targeting administrative and efficiency improvements. It is just too conservative and unimaginative. Where is the boldness implied by an African Renaissance?
My standpoint is too far removed from the policy's content to engage with it point by point. My perspective starts with identification with immigrants. I relate to the "outsiders" of the world - those who don't fit in, who can't be "placed" and whose mobility unsettles others. Those who get asked: "Where are you from?" rather than "Where do you live?". This goes back to my experience in First World countries, at their airports, in their neighbourhoods and on their buses and trains. It also links to the deep stirrings I have felt from the artistic work of exiles, troubadours and those who form part of one Diaspora or another.
My outlook is also informed by what I know to be the reality of urban life all over the world. All major urban centres around the world play home to potpourris of people. This is so in the melting pot that is the US. It is so in Canada where most people from Toronto are from immigrant descent. It is true in Europe, where immigrants now form part of national sports teams and help give an old culture some new dynamism. In Africa, the cities are bustling centres of trade, information and movement that cut across the borders so arbitrarily drawn after the First World War.
Also colouring my view is my opposition to actions that stymie the response of ordinary people to globalisation. World liberalisation has meant that finance, technology and goods move virtually unrestricted around the world. Why shouldn't people? And if the production and quality jobs are centralised in a few spots around the world, why shouldn't those from marginal countries follow the jobs. Most sub-Saharan African countries ship in almost all their manufactured goods and non-consumables from outside the continent and an increasing volume of consumables from South Africa.
If people from the poorest countries stay and live in poverty, they get branded as shiftless, blameworthy and lacking in initiative. If they move, seeking out opportunities to improve the lot of their families, they get zapped us unwanted "aliens".
I accept that only a minority support my view. But then, I ask, where are the labour unions that once brandished the slogan: workers of the world unite? Why the appetite for nationalist protectionism, at a time when the solidarity of the poor is most needed? And where are the South African exiles, who found refuge from apartheid in African countries and a mix of friendly and not-sofriendly lands further afield.
And what about the exponents of the African Renaissance? Such a vision suggests an immigration policy that speaks to the need for social, cultural and economic interchange and for joint efforts against poverty. It rails against misguided dreams of national homogeneity and purity, and values the fusion of insights, ways of life and languages from different parts of the continent.
Of course, it is easy to be clear on my approach but much harder - given competing pressures - to prescribe in detail a modern forward-looking immigration policy for our country.
Furthermore, we are so far from ready to contemplate the end-point of open borders, even though we have seen moves toward this in Europe and between some other first world countries. There is still a great deal of nervousness and fear. However, it can be said that a good policy will have these elements:
It should not be so rigid and out of touch with reality that it becomes unworkable. Let's rather have a reasonable level of legal immigrants than a huge population of illegal immigrants. Orderliness is better than losing control. A friendlier policy also makes it easier to ferret out criminals from among the immigrants.
It should take both a formal sector approach (attracting skills to help the economy through corporate work permits) as well as informal tack. We should open up to entrepreneurs and the many itinerant traders who, for example, peddle artefacts and African-print cloth, and return home with hefty consignments of South African goods.
It must value cultural interchange. Intellectual and creative workers from the rest of Africa who settle here are part of the ongoing process of ending the inbreeding of ideas that came with the isolation years.
It should take account of the fact that most migrants are circulatory, with no desire to settle permanently in South Africa.
Frank Meintjies is a change management specialist at Deloitte Consulting
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